The tip of the iceberg

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One of the things I didn’t fully grasp when started my research on language learning through reading was that books are living things. They are born, they live out there in the world, and by use and wear and tear, they die. It is really like the Game of Life.  A book needs people to buy it to have a chance of surviving to have a second printing, and bookstores need it to be popular to justify the shelf space in their store. The price of a new and on the shelf book of a second language book generally makes your pocketbook say ‘gulp’. Not everyone loves Amazon, and I do love my local bookstore, but I’m a super-fan. I am also a fan of Hollywood, as many classic and popular books get made into movies, generating demand for the books once again. Those books get reprinted and translated into other languages, and they gain new life, if for a short time. The increased demand coupled with availability makes the price much easier to swallow. amazon.com and even amazon.ca has a greater selection of second language books that are simply not practical to keep on the shelf at your local bookstore. Even better, there is a growing body of e-books in a second language which don’t need shelf space on a bookshelf, so gain a longer lifespan.

I set out to compare classic and fun children’s books at about the grade 5 reading level from English to Spanish, and English to French. Until I am independently wealthy or prove to my customers that this endeavor is not just wild tilting of windmills, I gather and study books what I can from libraries, amazon, and online used book stores. My stubbornness is paying off, but many books, sadly, disappear after their one print in that second language. My intent is to help get language learners to that reading level so it’s worth it to buy those books, and not simply give up after the first two overwelming pages.

The gathering and study of hundreds of books is paying off. Gathering and processing what can be learned from those books has been rather like eating a very large elephant, bite by bite. It is the iceberg you don’t need to be afraid to hit. Now that I have considered the full body of the iceberg, I can navigate around it much better. Truth is, you need a foundation of vocabulary in a second language before you attempt to read books and enjoy them. I have a prioritized vocabulary list and level one of my RPG game is officially underway. In the coming weeks there will be vocabulary bundles made available for purchase for navigating some great books that are widely available, that will give you just in time vocabulary by chapter. Funds raised will go towards the development of the code and art of the game, which in my opinion, is the best way to learn second language vocabulary, through play!

The Game of Life

(aka the Survival Game)
“This is a survival game. Therefore, the only way to “win” is to still be alive at the end of the game. Each type of animal (herbivore, omnivore and carnivore) has different needs which must be met in order to survive. Send the Herbivores out into the play area first, and give them at least a 10-minute head start on the others. The herbivores must find all the food and water stations in order to survive. Next, send out the omnivores. They must find all the water stations and at least two food stations. They must also catch at least four herbivores in order to survive. Herbivores are caught by being tagged, at which point the omnivore (or carnivore) takes one card from their life-ring. Carnivores are sent out next. They must find all the water stations and must catch at least ten other animals (can be either herbivores or omnivores)… You can also have one player circulate as Rabies or Disease.  If you want to make the game really complicated… as part of the survival game the players must find the mate of their species and trade some sort of “reproduction card”. ” (rules quoted from dragon.sleepdeprived.ca)

 

On becoming an accidental librarian

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I’ve been collecting kids books translated into Spanish for more than twenty years. Sure, there are book stores everywhere in the world, books sold in airports, books sold at gas stations. I quickly noticed that most books are for adults, or for very very young children. I met Simon Rose, a children’s book author, at Chapters recently, and he tells me its completely up to the publisher whether a book will get translated into another language. I understand the economics of it, publishers will print books that will sell. If it sells well, it will get another printing. So thank you to the movie industry and the publishers for pumping out those massively popular series of books for children and young adults that are so prolific, keep up the great work!

I sincerely hope to drive up demand for children’s books in other languages with the work I’m doing. I have almost 1000 books in my English corpus, and I’ve got several hundred I’ve acquired in Spanish by those same authors. I’m basing my language collocation research where possible on comparing apples to apples.

Where do I find my books? I’ve had the most luck with amazon. Every trip I make to the US I get books delivered to my hotel, and it’s like Christmas morning every time. I get very excited to find children’s e-books on amazon, and it’s getting more and more common to find the books I’m looking for. Why? I haven’t asked amazon or the publishers, but it’s not a big leap to theorize that once it’s translated, it doesn’t cost nearly as much to print it and distribute it. There are still loads of books that I can only find paper copies of, and often I have to put my super-sleuth hat on to find them in used book stores online, because they are out of print. In the meantime, I’m adding my library of the books I’ve found in Spanish to the Spanish library on this site as I find them, so you can find them too. I’m getting creative, when I can’t find classics first printed in the 1970s or 1980s, I’ll find books have been written since that have similar themes or genres, that have stood on the shoulders of those giants. I still get pretty excited when I find those out of print books though…it’s like running into a friend you haven’t seen in a dog’s age in the grocery store, that pleasant surprise that brightens your day and brings an instant smile to your face.

On Being Bonkers

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(image from brittishdesigns.blogspot.com)

I aspire to being bonkers. All the best innovations and paradigm shifts that change our experience of life come from people who are a bit bonkers, the visionaries of our society. You know what a visionary is? Someone who sees what others don’t. I’m thankful that being bonkers in this part of the world does not result in church-state mandated house arrest as in Galileo’s time, for daring to publicly support the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun, that we humans are not the center of the universe. We’ve got great studies out there that have said that the way we teach second languages is pretty ineffective, and yet the way we learn language remains largely unchanged, with a teacher, a classroom, and lists of words and grammar rules to memorize and regurgitate. Or worse, the pendulum swing that immersion is best, and you’ll learn the language by being exposed to it, with no leverage of what you learned from learning your first language at all. Neither approach is suited to how the bilingual brain actually works.

I’m a big fan of the scientific method. So I’m answering the question of ‘Well, if not that way, then what?’ Working as an independent researcher, I often have conversations running in my head providing the direction of my studies. One of the questions I am most interested in is ‘What is the most useful vocabulary to learn to get up and running in another language?’ I mean, really up and running, like, able to read Harry Potter and enjoy it? Why Harry Potter? Because they are great books and so popular they’ve been translated into 68 languages. Why not the classic Don Quixote that is mandatory reading for any University level Spanish program? Well, this is where my artistic license comes in. I assert by vote of copies sold worldwide that people are much more interested in reading Harry Potter, and you’ll learn more if your learning material is interesting, and fun. I assert that language learning can be fun, even a game. It’s been well documented that kids learn a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and spelling from reading. According to studies referenced in Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, you need to know about 95% of the running words to meaningfully add to your vocabulary from reading.

One approach to figuring out what vocabulary to learn first is to gather examples of language in use (a corpus) and do a frequency analysis of words that pop up. Unsurprisingly in English the, and, to, I, of are the top five. I faithfully started creating learning materials based on the de-facto standard corpuses available, and quickly got frustrated with words that made no sense until I dug a little. The 100 million word corpus I was working with was based on academic papers in chemistry, biology and linguistics. So a word like ‘membrane’ is purported to be a very useful word. Textbooks were little better, one of the only textbooks available in my local library for learning Serbian talked about being an economics student traveling to Serbia in its first dialogue. My reaction to these is something along the lines of ‘this is bonkers, what would a normal person want for vocabulary?’

So what words are best to learn before you attempt Harry Potter? And how many words is that, anyway? My kids were in bilingual Spanish/English for grades one to four. They read Because of Winn-Dixie simultaneously in both languages, and loved it in English, hated it in Spanish. In fact, by the end of grade four, they dug in their heels and said no more bilingual school for me. Stake to my heart! I, who have had so many doors open to me because I was willing to work with people whose first language was not English, and learn their language to communicate more effectively, have kids that refuse to learn another language. Why did they hate reading a great book in Spanish? Because they didn’t understand more than 10% of the running words in the book. If they’d been allowed a dictionary, they would have been looking up 9 words in 10! I love the idea of having second language learners reading great books for learning that is necessary outside of the classroom – no teacher can give you mastery of a language in just classroom time! But to be able to get useful learning from reading, you need a foundation of vocabulary before you attempt it. Else you have a recipe for disappointment and frustration, and in most learners’ cases, giving up.

I started with creating a corpus of 10 Million words in English, based on popular books for around the grade 5 level. That’s the target vocabulary for most English newspapers, by the way. You can see the books I’ve included in the English library on this site. There were weird words popping up because of the subject matter, so I tried 20 million, then 30 million, and now I’m up to 64 million words and 876 books. Don’t ask how long that took, you don’t want to know and I don’t want to tell you. It’s where the bonkers comes in.

How does that apply to learning another language, you ask? Well, my reasoning is this – English books are pretty plentiful from my local library, English books are affordable and widely available on amazon, your local book store, and your local used book store. Similar vocabulary will likely apply in another language, right? We’ll see. I’ve been collecting those same books that are in my English corpus in Spanish for years, but in a focused way for the last two years. Spanish books are pretty available because of the market for them in the United States, if you know where to look. Every trip to Europe and Mexico I’ve headed to the local book stores, and the children’s book selection for grade 5 Spanish is universally dismal, the children’s section ends at something like ‘Cat in the Hat’. I think I can safely leave it to your imagination how useful reading Cat in the Hat is to preparing you for reading Harry Potter. Usually a book is printed once in Spanish, so they can be hard to get for the classics, but not impossible. The increasing popularity of e-books is changing that landscape, however, and I’m taking full advantage of that for my Spanish corpus. I would love to say the same is true for French, in theory, I live in a bilingual country. Head to amazon.ca or any bookstore in western Canada and you’ll see prices that make you choke, similar to book prices in Europe! Thankfully the local library has a decent selection that I’m able to leverage. For now, collecting French children’s books remain on my someday, one day list.

So how many words does it take to get to 95%? A lot, but I’m refining that to something manageable for beginners. To get to 80% of running words, you need around 1600 words, in English. If you look a little closer, and you count dog and dogs as one word, and eat, eats, eating, ate as one word (headwords) you have a palatable 567 words. For 95% of words you need 15101 words, but really only 4672 headwords.

How many words does it take to get to 95% in those same Spanish books? I’m working on it – I’m at 13 million in my Spanish corpus, with approximately 200 books that I’ve found but haven’t added yet. I’ll probably get up to 30 Million in my Spanish corpus. I’m cheating shamelessly by leveraging my English corpus and mapping my most important English vocabulary to its counterpart in Spanish, which admittedly is not always apples to apples. I can tell you where I won’t cheat though – by adding in padding by substituting academic papers or the more available and wildly less useful romance novels that abound in both the English and Spanish language, and that are of zero interest to my twelve year old boys, and, I assert, the male half of the population on planet earth. You should see what the most frequent words in those are!

Get into Reading – Part One

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I was a shy kid (don’t listen to the sniggers of people who know me now, my Mom will back me up here) and always had my nose in a book.  Screens were not the competition, with the exception of Saturday morning cartoons.  My favorite times next to Christmas morning were trips were to the tiny town library, visiting my 2nd grade teacher to borrow from her library, and library time at school.  So it was an unpleasant shocker when my kids preferred screens to anything, and reading was a chore I had to force them to do before they got screens. Worse, the books I remember reading when I was a kid like ‘A Little Princess’ were not going to fly with nine-year-old boys.  In the world of education, this is called being a reluctant reader.  One of my sons even refused to read fiction at school, declaring it as useless.  The other had terrible spelling.  Sleeves were rolled up at this point, and I went back to what had been suspended for a year or so in the busy-ness of life (yes I take liberties with English) – reading out loud to my kids.  I started with the Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, read what my boys said their friends were reading, downloaded audiobooks from the library for road trips, and got my kids into series of books so they were hooked into what comes next.  We’re now off to the races with reading, spelling and vocabulary are vastly improving, and my kids read for at least an hour at bedtime.  The (English) library that is emerging on this site reflect my favorites.  Feel free to browse and suggest additions.

My advice to parents who despair that their kids are not readers – read to them at bedtime – they want to delay bedtime any way they can get away with anyway, will beg for the whole chapter, and you get to have planned quality time with your kids.  The reasons you don’t are all in your head – they’re going to say they are too old for this, I’m too tired at the end of the day, they won’t listen to me reading to them, this will be so booooring for me.  Trust me a little, do it for seven days in a row, then you can call me a dirty rotten liar, you hated every minute of it, and your kids aren’t even speaking to you now.

You may be thinking at this point – how does this apply to me?  I thought this was a language learning website.  Think of this as backstory.  Why I do what I do. We’re just getting to know one another.  Forget what you know, or think you know, about me and about language learning.  Suspend your disbelief a little longer.  You may not be a parent, but I bet you’ve read Harry Potter.  Or if you haven’t, you should.  The why you should will be explained in due course.  Start with the first book, even if you have read it before.  Start tonight. Seriously.

The bonus – whether you are a parent or not – you get to read great modern literature that wasn’t even written when you were a kid, and there are some great authors out there that have written entertaining stories for any age.  It takes about an hour to read a chapter from Harry Potter aloud, so plan accordingly.  Or get the audio book from your library or amazon and listen to it in the car on your way to work.

Running from Safety

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I heard an interview of Norman Lear on NPR recently. When the 92 year old was asked for life advice from his experience over a very successful career, he said two words to sum it up. Over and Next. When something is over, it’s over, and then you need to focus on what’s next.

I lost my balance between family and career a couple of years ago. I said yes to working with Calgary, Serbia and India at the same time, added to being Mom to twin boys, Cub leader and wife. I wish I could tell you that it was a triumph of human stubbornness over adversity. It was not, dear reader. It was a fast-pass to a critical moment.

I chose the sketchbook my husband Mike put in my hands to interrupt the tears, and the reminder in that storm of emotion and exhaustion that I could do anything with my life that I wanted.

I have known for a long time what I love. I love learning languages. I love reading. I love teaching. I love playing games. And I love telling people what to do.

We are not typical, our family. My husband reads textbooks and writes code on vacations. I design language learning strategies, sketch characters and art for my learning games and read children’s books in several languages on vacation. We go to theme parks and take days off to play board games as a family. Mike and I traded places, with me entering the start-up world, the water he swam in for 17 years, and he has taken on the career with the steady paycheque with benefits. Balance maintained.

I am passionate about creating ways to make language learning fun for children and adults. I’ve spent the last two years doing independent research to confirm that my theories about language learning would hold water.

If you want to know what it takes to read Harry Potter in Spanish and French, I’m a great person to ask. If you want to know what vocabulary you should learn to give you the best bang for your buck, I have that answer too. If you want to know how to encourage new habits and discipline for yourself or your family without having to assume the role of being the nag in your family, I have something to say about that too.

I look forward to sharing with you how I’ve turned my dream to do. I invite you to turn dream to do with me too.

Down a Rabbit Hole, Alice

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I have always loved books.  Some of my earliest memories are reading Nancy Drew, A Little Princess, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, and every book about horses I could get my hands on.  I grew up on a farm, near a little town which doubled in size when school was in session, with a wee town library.  I practically lived in the school library at recess, and I swear, even though my husband will disavow it, I didn’t talk much (he’s the guy who couldn’t stop laughing .  I didn’t have many friends.  I had a dog, a horse, and books.  Lots and lots of books.  Even the title ‘Some of My Best Friends are Books‘  resonates like a tuning fork for me.

I discovered fantasy books when I came to Calgary and discovered the Calgary Public Library.  Tolkien, Steven R.R. Donaldson, David and Leigh Eddings.  If I liked an author, I read all their books.  Series of books were even better.  I got swept up in Harry Potter with everyone else, and back into the world of children’s books.  Now that I’m a mom of twin boys, I get to read those books again and discover what’s been written since the seventies.  In Grade 3, Calvin informed his teacher and I in no uncertain terms that reading fiction books was a complete waste of time and they were stupid.  Gasp!  Challenge accepted.  I immediately took back up my habit of reading to them at bedtime, and I got to pick the book.  You don’t like it, fine, go to sleep.  The first book I read them was the Wizard of Oz.  By the end of Chapter 2 Calvin couldn’t wait to find out what was next.  They still play on their ipads all day long, so like any good parent, I make them read first.  They don’t get to miss the joy of reading.  Not on my watch.  And just like some movies (the Princess Bride, the Neverending Story) you simply have to read them when you’re growing up, so they get to be part of who you are.

There are a good many books that were not published when I was little, or that just weren’t available in my town library that I’m discovering for the first time.  Like a kid in a candy store.

This last year has been the leap of faith, supported by my husband Mike, that I start living my dream.  I know I found my life purpose when I started spending every spare moment on vacations working on this idea bigger than me.  It simply took years for me to make the leap and do something serious about it.  These good friends in the book lists below have become the core idea around generating a corpus (word collection) and frequently used vocabulary and spelling lists for ESL learners, and has spilled over to my life-long passion of using technology to bring joy and ease to second language learning.  You see, for the last couple decades I’ve been obsessively collecting children’s books and fairy tales in other languages too, mostly Spanish and French, but also Italian, Serbian, Gaelic and Finnish.  I’ve learned a lot from my attempts to teach teachers how to use technology in their language classrooms.  I’ve learned a lot from going through Spanish bilinugal school with my kids for grades 1 to 4, that there’s something I want to give you, my readers.

I’ll have you reading Harry Potter in Spanish this time, and it will be like curling up on the couch with your good friend you haven’t visited for a while and remember just why you became such good friends.

You can help this dream see the light of day for everyone by volunteering time, donating books that I’m looking for, or becoming an alpha tester of mydream2do.  Soon there will be a crowdsourced project you can help fund.  The logjam is only due to one person spinning many plates to keep things moving along, and to prove out some long held theories of mine.  I’ve only been mysterious about the last year of my life because inventors are by necessity a paranoid lot.  I look forward to sharing more soon.

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